Once upon a time in the Himalayan mountain of Kailash, Goddess Parvati wondered what Lord Shiva must be feeling and as to how being in any state with oneself feels like. Hence, she walked up to the Lord and asked him to suggest to her a way by which she could enter that state and experience whatever he does along with him.
In answer to her question, Lord Shiva simply asked her to sit on his lap. She did so and he immediately absorbed her into him, and she became a part of him because of which Lord Shiva became ecstatic. As Lord Shiva accommodated Devi Parvati, he had to shed half of him and that is how a complete man became half woman- Ardharaneeshwara.
This seemingly interesting mythological story however has great meaning and significance to it.
The idea that such a portrayal of a half man-half woman conveys is that anything in universe is the result of the combination of masculine and feminine energies.
Let us look at different contexts in which the representation of Ardhanareeshwara is symbolic:
Creation and Existence-
When looked from this aspect, Lord Shiva can be perceived as Purusha (a catalyst for creation) and Goddess Parvati as Prakriti (nature or the energy that nurtures creation). It is because of the actions of a Purush that creation takes place and of Prakriti that life continues to grow- be it of humans or of mere ants.
If either of these two entities are removed from the chain, life in all its forms ceases to exist and hence, their union is the force that keeps life going.
Evolution and Development-
In this context, Shiva and Shakti (Goddess Parvati) are portrayed as masculine and feminine energies respectively. Here, it is important to note that masculine energy does not essentially refer to a man and feminine energy to a woman.
This school of thought is called Tantra Yoga. According to it, masculine energies hold within themselves a sense of freedom, consciousness, purpose and awareness while feminine energies are made up of creativity, sensuality, expressiveness and the need to nurture.
Tantra Yoga says that every individual has within himself/herself both these aspects irrespective of their gender and it is when both masculinity and femininity are balanced that a person attains a state of perpetual joy similar to how Lord Shiva became ecstatic as soon as Devi Parvati became a part of him.
In today’s world, these masculine and feminine energies are often misconceived to be limited to a particular gender. For instance, any man who is soft centred and sensitive or any woman who displays strength and assertiveness are immediately berated.
However, what we fail to understand and keep in mind is that we are all a combination of both masculine and feminine and if either of the aspects go missing, life will be devoid of harmony and balance.
Hence, creative depictions such as that of the Arthanareeshwara act to remind one of this fundamental reality of life and existence.